As I mentioned before, this week I attended a screening of Art School Confidential, and spoke with Director Terry Zwigloff, screenplay writer/comic book artist Daniel Clowes and star Max Minghella in the hopes answering the questions we have all been wondering. Does Clowes write a screenplay that builds something meaningful out of his brilliant four page comic about the art school screw? Is the film equal to or better than Ghost World, Crumb, and Louie Bluie? Will the stars of the film look just like they do in the comic? The short answer to all of these questions is a disappointing no (for the most part), with the predictable adage, “the comic was better.”
The original four page strip the film is based upon is a deceptively simple parody about Art School culture. The comic begins with a statement by an undercover agent who wants to reveal the “shocking truth about the biggest scam of the century” , and quickly runs down the laundry list of annoying and/or useless art school activities and personalities. The narrative may read as slightly resentful, but it’s too accurate a depiction to hold this against the artist.
In contrast, the film is an extremely bitter account of not just art school culture, but the art world as a whole, and is imprecise and even careless in its representation. This is best demonstrated by the fact the major plot point of the movie centers around the ridiculous idea that well known gallerists pick freshmen out of their mid year review which in turn can launch their careers. Misfit students enter the school with dreams of becoming art stars, and getting laid in the process.
Given the potential problems in parodying a culture that is inaccurately represented from the outset I asked Daniel Clowes why he had chosen to depict freshman instead of graduate students, an age where there are examples of those who start showing before graduation. “Oh yeah sure,” said Clowes acknowledging the point, “but I’ve heard stories in LA that in their freshman year, that’s when kids start getting signed up for galleries.” Well, yes, but the movie is set in New York, not LA, and what Clowes has relayed is factually incorrect. Putting aside the recent efforts to keep galleriests out of first year graduate student shows because it hinders their development, no gallery signs up a freshman. Even if, by some freak of circumstance the quality of the work warranted gallery representation, people at that age are simply too unstable to invest in. It has to be said, that the fact that Clowes can make a statement like this suggests that very little research was done since the time he attended art school, (which by the way was likely thirty years ago).
While there is no excuse for these kinds of oversights, it does seem that the small budget they were working with had some negative effects on the movie. Of course, a little more creative thinking when working with these issues might have resolved a lot of problems in this movie, particularly in regards to location. For instance, the students in the film attend Strathmore School of the Arts, which is meant to be situated somewhere in Brooklyn though it could easily have been (and arguably should have been) placed anywhere else. Due to budget restrictions, the film was shot in California, which caused some significant problems in finding locations that resembled New York in any capacity. There are only two scenes in the movie that are at all convincing in respect to establishing location, and one of them features the Spring Street subway station just outside the “cutting edge” gallery that is supposed to launch these young artists careers. This, once again brings up the issue of accuracy in creating a good parody since SoHo is thriving art district for Banana Republic show room photography alone.* Attention to these kinds of details make no difference to those who know nothing of this world, but would go a long way in maintaining the audience it was intended for in the first place.
There are examples of films that have parodied the art world, and done just this and therefore provide a good point of comparison, most notably, John Water’s Pecker. What sets this movie apart from Art School Confidential is the multidimensionality of the characters (no one in that film is all good or bad), and the fact that the art work made by Furlong’s character solicits much more accurate and believable responses from those around him. In Art School Confidential, much of the work solicits confused reactions, and there is no distinguishable difference in terms of quality between professionals and students. This was clearly an intentional move, as one of the thematics of the movie is that there is no model for evaluation of art work within academia or the art world, which is what makes art school so fundamentally flawed. If you buy into this notion you may not have any issues with this film, but as someone who has built a practice based upon the premise that there are standards this isn’t a premise I find interesting.
Most likely a result easy jokes that are based on this thought, a good portion of this film feels like an American Pie for artists. There are however some great scenes and performances. The best segment in the movie comes from the character that looked most like his cartoon counterpart, the male model. I would guess that almost every art student has a story that vaguely recalls the scenario in this movie, and for this reason will carry particular resonance with this crowd. Steve Buscemi, who is not credited for his role, plays the smarmy gallery owner, and also strongly resembles one of the cartoons (albeit a different one – the creator of the tampon in the teacup, or rather, “Tangerine Amoeba Apartheid Heartbeat IV”). His performance in addition to John Malkovich’s were quite good as is Max Minghella’s, in as much as you can tell from a guy who is forced to spend the first half of the movie asking where his crush is.
The movie as a whole is probably worth watching, but not for any of the reasons you’d want to see a Clowes Zwigoff collaboration. For the same reasons we like countless other American comedies – mindless fun, Art School Confidential retains some appeal. I suspect however, that the DVD rental will be a better investment of time as I’m sure it will have commentary that is more interesting that the film itself. As it stands the piece lacks the sophistication and investment they brought to Ghost World, and the most the audience can hope to get out of the experience is a few easy laughs at the expense of artists and teachers. Normally, I quite like self deprication and find this sort of thing to warrant viewing, but it’s such an under achievement for these two, even that is questionable.
*Innocently, I also attempted to ask Zwigoff and Clowes about their choice of SoHo vs. Chelsea as a gallery location but was laughed out of the theatre when Clowes responded, “You mean what made us chose to shoot in Beverly Hills as opposed to Santa Monica?”, assuming I had no idea it was shot in California. This was probably the result of a poorly worded question on my part, but I have to say it was not a high point in my day.